The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has sued more than 26,000 Americans it claims have illegally downloaded music, and has used its stable of high priced lawyers to force settlements from most of the people it has sued.
Most of those sued have settled outside of court with the RIAA. A Minnesota woman who was charged with illegally encouraging the sharing of 1,700 songs has maintained that she was innocent of the charges and chose not to be forced into a settlement with the RIAA. She made the RIAA take the case to court and for the first time present a file-sharing case before a jury. She lost, and was ordered to pay $9,250 each for 24 songs that the RIAA chose to focus on during the trial.
Jammie Thomas was accused of sharing music with Kazaa, the peer-to-peer file-sharing service. Thomas still maintains that she has never owned a Kazaa account and that she did not know if someone else used her computer to illegally download music, but was unaware of it if that had occurred. The jury did not believe her, and ruled that Thomas alone was in charge of her computer and responsible for whatever use occurred; it was her computer, it was her house, regardless of who sat behind the keyboard at any given time. The jury did not, however, find Thomas guilty of actually “sharing the files” or intentionally acting to do so. The damages were awarded because they found that she had made the files available by the use of her computer. This finding could make it possible for Thomas to appeal the verdict because they didn’t find that she had intended to violate any music copyright laws. However, she likely does not have the money to hire an expensive lawyer to pay for an in-depth appeal.
As for the victory itself, both sides indicated that this judgment will not reduce music file sharing or the use of music file sharing services. This makes us wonder why the RIAA goes after small time individual users and then bankrupts them. Wouldn’t it make more sense to arrive at a consensus between the RIAA and the American music consumer public as to what constitutes “reasonable use” of music? And wouldn’t it also make a lot of sense to go after the people who are creating CDs of illegally downloaded music and distributing and selling hundreds and thousands of copies of them? These are the real violators; not college students and single mothers who share their computers with their friends and their kids. And what about the users in countries outside the U.S. that do not even have copyright laws or recognize copyright violation as a crime? There is certainly “illegal use” of U.S. music in those countries.
We think the RIAA is barking up the wrong tree by threatening and suing individuals and that it should refocus its efforts on pursuing and prosecuting big violators and developing fair reasonable use standards.